Red River, Dir. Howard Hawks (1948)

From left: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift Photo: The Guardian

From left: John Wayne as Thomas, Montgomery Clift as Matt Photo: Guardian


Red River is a Western that tells the tale of Thomas Dunson, (John Wayne at his most gruff), and his adopted son Matthew ‘Matt’ Garth (the handsome and charismatic Montgomery Clift). Aided by old hand ‘Groot’  Nadine (the wonderful Walter Brennan) and a motley crew of men including Matt’s gunslinger rival Cherry Valance (John Ireland) they  desperately attempt to drive thousands of cattle from Texas to Missouri (cue lots of great long-shots of all the herd who fill the screen).

A crazy enterprise that Tom is nonetheless determined to achieve at whatever cost. Which is where the drama comes in, Tom becomes  manical in his ambitions to get to Missouri, casually killing men who defect on the way (“I’ll read over them tomorrow”) and driving them and the horses to the point of exhaustion.

His adopted son Mat who has been loyal to him from the beginning, after all the killings and growing dissatisfaction from the men, decides to go against him in and ride to the nearer Kansas instead, leaving  stubborn Tom behind. A move that incenses him and leads him to swear that he will pursue Matt and kill him. As Matt moves towards Kansas he meets a feisty woman, Tess (the excellent and underrated JoanneDurr) who he falls in love with and who tries to talk  Tom  out of pursuing Matt. But Tom refuses to listen and assembles a posse of men to meet him in Kansas.

The film demonstrates Hawk’s typical macho male environment seen in other films such as Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday.  An environment typified by Wayne’s surly grizzled ranch-herd with big ambitions. Hawks shows this man as one macho to the point of ruthless madness but also shows that his gruffness hides a love for Matt and a sense of pain for the woman, Fen (Coleen Gray),  he left behind. Matt as portrayed by Clift represents a more feminised man (“soft” as Cherry and Tom calls him), he has much more compassion for the men’s suffering and as a consequence behaves in a much more humane and rational manner. Thus, Hawks show us  the dangerous consequence of taking masculinity to far and how it should always be tempered with some feminine sensitivity .

And it takes a strong woman, Tess who is able to enter their masculine world with ease (she  dosen’t even flinch when she gets hit by an arrow in one scene), but also able to make both men see the ridiculousness of their macho posturing in the end. As she makes them realise how much they really love and need each other.  In one key scene she gets Tom to open up and we see Wayne at his most affecting as he admits that the pain he feels from leaving the love of his life behind is like “knives stabbing you in the heart.”

Tess as played by Durr is also probably one of the most brilliant female characters featured in a Western bar Feathers (Angie Dickinson) in Hawks’s other great Western Rio Bravo. She is witty and fearless not afraid to stand up to Wayne’s Tom or give Matt a slap if he needs it and a relief from the usually  sentimental portarayals of women in most Westerns as the token love interest.

Hawks gets the best performances out of all his leads John Wayne is entirely convincing as the man consumed with his ambitions. The photogenic (every close-up is a visual treat) Montgomery Clift in his debut role brings subtlety and depth to Matt, a man torn by his conflicting  loyalties. The charisma he shows in this role shows already the star he would become and I can only think that James Dean must’ve been taking notes.

Walter Brennan and John Ireland as Groot and Cherry, meanwhile,  bring some excellent comic relief. Brennan playing Groots as a curmudgeonly, complaining (“Never liked seeing strangers. Maybe it’s because no stranger ever good newsed me.”) but ultimately endearing old man who amongst other things loses his false teeth in a gambling debt with a Comanche. While Ireland plays a guy who just can’t keep away from the women.

A must-see feel-good film that shows you all the elements: comedy, drama, action, great performances, great dialogue, that good films should have.


1 Comment

  1. […] Adventures, (2009). Red River, Dir. Howard Hawks (1948). [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Oct. […]

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